Facts About April Fools Day- When Did It Begin?
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Facts About April Fools Day- When Did It Begin?

This article was written in response to a question posted asking if there was any purpose in observing April Fools Day. The day can only be seen as a day for pulling pranks on family, friends and colleagues at work and so rather than directly answer the question I decided to look at the origins of the day as it appears to have begun for various reasons across time and in a number of locations.

There is no definite date recorded in history as to the origins of this day and who can be credited with holding the first April Fool’s Day, it may have begun as a celebration connected with the first day of the season of spring.

In 1582, in France the New Year celebrations moved from the date of March 25th until April 1st with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by the French King Charles IX to its new date of January 1st. With communication being a lot slower back then the news took in some instances years to travel to all locations such was the pace of travel. Many citizens refused to accept the new date in the calendar and continued with the New Year celebrations on the 1st day of April. These people were seen to be backward thinking and labelled as fools, they would then become the subject of ridicule, practical jokes and sent on fool’s errands.

Over time the playing of pranks on the first day of April travelled across the English Channel and into both England and Scotland during the 18th century, it would later be adopted by the English and French speaking colonies of North America.

The French story cannot be given as completely correct as until the change to January 1st as the date for the New Year the celebration had usually followed the date of Easter and as this follows the lunar calendar the date would have been different each year. So April 1st would have had no definite connection to the New Year over another spring day.

The countries throughout northern Europe at that time in particular each used differing calendars and celebrated the New Year at the date of their choosing. The British calendar held New Year’s Day on the 25th of March, on the day of the Feast of Annunciation and the celebrations continued until the 1st day of April. In Britain the calendar change occurred later than that of France, nearly two centuries later in 1752 although the custom of playing pranks was already well established by then.

In 1392, Chaucer wrote a tale of a cock being fooled by a fox, the consequences of which nearly led to the cock being eaten. The tale is loosely connected to the first day of April and if this was the origination of the day then it took nearly four hundred years and so long after Chaucer’s death before the connection was made. Many of Chaucer’s enthusiasts for his work do not believe in this being where the day began as his writing was of a style that was purposely confusing.

Two writers from the 16th century, a Frenchman and the other Flemish, wrote poems with references to foolish people. The French writer used the phrase ‘Poisson d’avril’ or April Fish, this term is used today in France as the term used to describe an April Fool. The Flemish writer described how a nobleman sends his servant on several errands on what was then known as errand day in medieval Dutch, the servant realising his master’s intentions asked if he were being sent on a fool’s errand. It would seem that the origins of this day began at someplace in Northern Europe at some point in the 16th century and later spread to Britain and then across the Atlantic.

There is an unconfirmed legend dating from 1632 that the Duke of Lorraine and his wife escaped from their imprisonment at Nantes, in France dressed as peasants and when questioned as to their identity the guard believed it to be an April Fool’s joke and allowed them on their way.

In 1686, John Aubrey, an English historian wrote of Fooles holy day, and that it was observed on the 1st of April. Further evidence of the existence of the occasion having become firmly accepted into Britain came when a newspaper in London printed a story in 1698 that people were sent to the Tower of London to observe the washing of the lions, people being sent to watch the non-existent ceremony became a traditional prank on this day, it continued until the late nineteenth century.

Other celebrations held on this day include the inversion of social order where servants and masters have a role reversal or children are allowed to have temporary control over their parents. Each of these instances are conducted in a comical and fun way to help defuse the challenges of winter with the arrival of spring. Each of these celebrations away from normal behaviour should traditionally end at noon as anyone continuing to play pranks after that hour then becomes the fool themselves.

The town of Gotham, in Nottinghamshire in central England has a tale that could have claims to its being the originator of the April Fool. In the 13th century King John was to visit the town and the tradition was that upon any road that the king walked that road would then become public property (it was customary at that time for visitors to pay a toll upon entering or leaving a settlement). Fearing they would lose this privilege the townspeople refused him entry and the King sent in his soldiers. When the army arrived they found a town full of people attempting such foolhardy tasks as drowning fish or catching birds and placing them into cages with no roof, the acts led the king to believe the town was too foolish to receive a punishment.

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Comments (3)

What a lot of claims made for the origin of one tradition! Although, I suppose if you looked at traditions and holidays and any kind of ritual that has been around for awhile, you would probably find lots of theories and claims. This was a very interesting Sunday jaunt through the ages and the countries of Europe.

I read with interest even though I do not take part in April Fools Day.

Very informative presentation, thank you John.

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